Category Archives: science

Crazy semester: Completed!

This semester was intense. The Intro to Counseling and Child/Adolescent Psychopathology classes seemed to go well, the internship students generally had good experiences, Dr. Joe McFall and I got some research mostly done, and lots of little mini-dramas of the academic variety happened.

The greatest thing, however, was the White Picket Fence project. Well, the project is great, but the students. A completely great team of undergrads worked really hard on some excellent stuff

  • Exploring, through interviews, LGBTQ+ individuals’ perceptions of “fundamental unknowability” in potential romantic partners
  • Anonymous surveys with experimental manipulations to see the effects of belief in performative bisexuality on judgments of (and possibly tendencies toward) sexual aggression
  • Knowledge of, and attitudes about community resources available for LGBTQ+ victims of intimate partner violence

The projects were presented in three separate venues: The Society for Cross-Cultural Research conference in New Orleans, the SUNY Undergraduate Research Conference, and Fredonia’s own Student Creativity and Research Exposition. They gave great presentations! Note: That’s much easier when the research is great in the first place, which it was.

Eventually I’ll get around to uploading the presentations…

Free Will is Bad for (the Study of) Psychopathology?

I clicked the title of this piece, despite it being in Psychology Today, which doesn’t always report as scientifically as I would like. Because I am interested in thinking and research about “free will.” I expected another piece saying what most of them say, but did not expect the very insightful discussion of how a belief in free will might play into mental illness–how we conceptualize it, how we study it, how we talk about it, and how individuals experience it.

Kudos to Stankevicius, for exploring a rarely-considered but perhaps very important implication of the “do we have free will?” issue.

Notes to students:

  1. This is written by a psychiatrist (i.e., an MD), not a psychologist. You might see a different style of thinking, and you will definitely see some psychiatry-specific terminology.
  2. Read the article at your own risk. The philosophical and scientific question of whether we have “free will” is a very deep rabbit hole. You don’t necessarily come out feeling comfortable.

Mexico is ridiculously ethnically diverse

It’s nearly criminal that the US knows so little about Mexico. Since living there 20+ years ago I’ve thought about it a lot, including about how weird it is that Native Americans from, say, California are called Native Americans and sometimes even identified with the name of their tribe or nation, but those from Coahuila or Baja California Norte are just “Mexican” (which is true, of course) with no recognition that they’re just as Native American as Pueblos, Arapahos, Navajos, Seminoles, etc.

This piece contends that Mexico is home to 65 distinct indigenous groups–though I’ve seen analyses that break those down further to get numbers in the hundreds. The amount of genetic difference between some indigenous Mexican populations and others is as great as the difference between Europeans and East Asians.

American social/economic mobility: Interesting gender patterns

As usual, Five Thirty-Eight is awesome. This recent post about American socioeconomic mobility–the likelihood of an individual having a higher SES than her or his parents–is a great read for the demographically- or data-minded. Of particular interest are the male/female patterns in light of starting out wealthy vs. poor. Men and women have clearly different trajectories and opportunities. Fascinating stuff.

Diversity goes back a long way

Some scientists analyzed the remains of four people who lived (and died) 2,000 years ago in London. In just these four people they found evidence of life (and possibly ancestry) in Africa, ancestors in southern Europe, and a woman who was “genetically male.” I guess London has been cosmopolitan for quite some time.

p-values: Not as Passé as You Might Think

In a nice, thorough blog post with plenty of simulation goodness, Daniel Lakens (an experimental psychologist in The Netherlands) demonstrates pretty convincingly that recent reports of the death of p-values have been greatly exaggerated. I find it telling that a Bayesian statistician is coming to the aid of p-values. I don’t even know what to compare this to, but it’s cool.

Trigger warnings fail to divide along classic lines

I’m really fascinated lately by how the concept of “trigger warnings” has divided various North American communities–academics, political pundits, students, abuse victims, civil rights advocates, etc. Mostly I’m fascinated because the issue doesn’t divide cleanly along traditional battle lines like “left/right,” “progressive/conservative,” “male/female,” “individualist/collectivist,” etc.

There is now (2015, Fall) a compelling description of how this issue, arguably run amok, basically shut down one professor’s course. This piece is notable because it’s not the standard rant about hypersensitive students, written by people who have very little sociocultural vulnerability–it’s a narrative from a professor attempting to expose and celebrate minority sexuality in film, a prof who doubles as a rape crisis counselor, a professor (sadly, this seems relevant) who is female and an ethnic minority. Demands from a few (apparently highly fragile) students derailed what appears to have been a relevant, informative, iconoclastic, and edgy class. In other words, the things college should be about, in any “good liberal’s” fondest daydreams, were shut down by other liberals.

So it’s getting pretty interesting. It’s liberals against liberals up in here. Educators against educators. Students against students. I’ve got more pat phrases like that, but I’ll stop now.

Notably, not everyone is convinced that trigger warnings are destroying America. And my own experience, at a “public liberal arts” university in the Northeast/Midwest, has not included any “PC tyranny;” but, then again, I’m a middle-aged white male, so perhaps I’m not going to bear the brunt of this kind of thing even if it is happening around me. Some of my colleagues report increasing emotional fragility of students in regards to classroom content, but I have mainly noticed increased fragility in regards to reading between class periods and finding test questions based on lecture content that was not in the PowerPoint slides.

I was slightly surprised to find that AAUP has published an official statement about trigger warnings, calling them “infantilizing and anti-intellectual.” I don’t know that I’m comfortable going quite so far down that road, but I do recognize that the desire to protect the psychologically vulnerable can rub uncomfortably against other core values, particularly free speech.  Continue reading

The Mars and Venus thing is stupid, but it’s not sexism

Last fall, my university had a tiny kerfuffle: a student working for the university’s social media team retweeted another student’s tweet. It’s been deleted, but it said,[university], where the weather is more confusing than the women.” Somebody cried foul, one thing led to another, and the President of the university issued a mea culpa about this event that “…quite simply shouldn’t have happened,” agreeing that the message was “sexist,” with “offensive implications,” and “hurtful.” As a result of this incident, the President has asked for “new policies on oversight of messages on the website and social media.”

I currently study men’s beliefs about women–particularly men’s beliefs that women are “fundamentally unknowable” (i.e., approximately as confusing as the weather), so this caught my eye when I (belatedly) found out about it.

TL;DR: I don’t think it was “sexist” in the way we usually use that term, and I think, from a logical point of view, the university administration overreacted. However, from a realpolitik perspective any university President in her right mind would have reacted the same way.

Continue reading

Correlation and Causation: Getting to know each other

Thanks to Graham Toal for pointing this out!

As has been noted frequently by others, correlation absolutely does (usually) imply causation (just not necessarily the simplistic X → Y model that immediately forms in our head after reading “X is correlated with Y”). The problem has always been that correlation itself is never enough to know where this causation came from. There are too many possibilities, such as:

  • X → Y
  • Y → X
  • X + Z → Y
  • X + Z – (H + L) / J + (K + S)TU → Y (I mean it can be really complicated; you get the picture…)

Apparently, however, in relatively simple two-variable systems, causality can be identified accurately about 80% of the time, from purely observational data. A recent paper, from a team of German, Swiss, and Dutch researchers, reports the findings. Using a variety of known and simulated cause-effect situations, and utilizing only the observational aspects of the data (not using any experimentally-manipulated situations, for example), the researchers report a very high success rate at figuring out whether X caused Y or vice-versa, by analyzing asymmetries in the “noise” (or error variance) associated with X and Y. The process is called the “additive noise method.” Because, as it turns out, noise in the causal variable can influence the noise in the effect, but not the other way around.

I suppose it’s still possible that this is bad science or bad reporting or something, but to my not-very-astute eye it looks legit. If so, I’m sure it will be developed quickly for other applications. If it is even moderately effective with the very noisy variables many of us in the behavioral sciences deal with, I think it will get itself integrated into SEM methodology and its many descendants and cousins. This would be a huge step forward, as SEM models are currently criticizable for almost certainly mis-specifying cause and effect a lot. This would reduce that a lot. And would probably reduce the number of SEM analyses appearing in behavioral sciences journals, once it became extremely difficult for one’s model to fit both the covariance structure of the data and the patterns of error variance suggesting which variables were later in the causal chain and which earlier.

I am excited 🙂

Placebos everywhere

I found this article about placebos kind of charming. Placebo elevator buttons (I knew it!) and placebo “walk” buttons at intersections (I suspected it!). But I wonder: is this really the placebo effect? Shouldn’t a true placebo somehow provide part of the benefit that the real thing is supposed to give? Placebo ≠ faking it.

Placebos via Slashdot


This morning, I got an email that seemed initially to confirm my most secret suspicions about the pedantry and insecure elitism of the professional organization to which I belong. It called for a vote on whether we should start pronouncing the “p” in “psychology.” Then, according to the email, “…how you pronounce psychology will be like a badge of loyalty: are you a scientist, or are you… something else?” There was also a jab at “other organizations” who would continue to leave the “p” silent.

Well, coming as this did from the APS, who have at times behaved like the punky kid with a chip on his shoulder at the birthday party, it was just barely believable.

Until I got to the part that suggested that, with the trend toward phoenetic pronunciation of English words, “psychology” may soon be spelled “sykolojy,” with the result that “Our acronym would then become ASS. Nobody wants that.”

And then, finally, I checked the date on the email. 🙂

I made a jpeg (below). Click for full-size.